A Christmas Garland/A Vain Child
How very delightful Struwwelpeter is! For all its crude translation and cheap aspect, it has indeed the sentiment of style, and it reveals, with surer delicacy than does any other record, the spirit of a German Christmas Day. Over the first page presides an angel with bunt wings, such as were fashionable in the Empress Augusta's period. There stand, on her either side, studded with tapers and erect among pink clouds, two patulous Christmas trees, from beneath whose shade two smaller angels sprinkle toys for good children. A delightful group! Hoffmann guides me, as Mephisto, Faust, through all the nurseries of that childish world. He shows me those undersized, sharp-featured, bright-tunicked children, mocking the blackamoor along the flowered pathway, or fidgeting at table, or refusing soup. At his word, a door springs open for the furial inrush of that tailor who does ever dock miscreant thumbs, and Harriet, also, avidis circumdata flammis, comes flying from her great folly. Struwwelpeter himself does not please me. His tangled density of chevelure and meek exposure of interminable nails, his ill-made tunic and green gaiters, make altogether a quite repellent picture. More pleasing to seek those gracious pages traversed by Johnny's history! The landscape there is nothing but a lamp-post and some cobble-stones; the boy très dégagé, his chin aloft, his combed hair fugient in the breeze, one scarlet boot advanced, the fingers of one hand outstretched, under his arm a book of bright scarlet. These or those, it may be of my readers do not remember the story of his strange immersion, and for their sake I will rehearse it, briefly. Johnny was ever wont to ignore the pavement, the grass of his treading; curlous, rather of the flight of birds or the clouds' ordering, περιφρονων τον ηλίον. Once from the river that was their home, three little fishes saw him and marvelled at his mien, nor were they surprised, but frightened only when he fell among them. Long on the surface of the water lay he, finless and immobile, till he was retrieved by "two strong men," was set by their hands upon the dyke. And, as he stood there, a poor cascade of water, the three fishes swam to the water's surface, mocking him, for lo! the scarlet book that was his treasure had been swept far from him and lost in further waters.
It is now quite fifteen years since my nurse read to me this tragedy, but time has not made it less poignant. At school, at Oxford, often, often, did I wonder what was written in Johnny's scarlet book, who were his saviours, whether 'twas indeed transcendent whimsy that merged him in the sudden waters, or whether, in the language of our rural police he had anything on his mind? Last spring, though, I chanced to stay for a few days in Frankfort, Hoffmann's city. Here, I thought, I might pierce the mysteries of that old disaster. As I passed through the streets, I seemed to recognize Johnny's mature features over every grey beard. I made inquiries. None knew Johnny. In my distracted wandering, I did, at length, find the dyke, the cobble-stone, the lamppost, just as Hoffmann had drawn them, but, though I had the river dragged for many hours, the remnant of no scarlet book rose to the surface. I left Frankfort in some annoyance. Wearied with research, I slept soundly in the train, and, in a dream, sleep gave mee, found the secret of my vain quest. In a dream, 1 saw myself strutting, even as Johnny had strutted, a creature of high and insolent carriage, bearing beneath my arm a scarlet book, labelled "The Works of Max Beerbohm." No heed was I giving to the realities of life around me, as I strutted on. Before my feet lay a river that was the river of Journalism, and from the surface of its water three inkstained fishes were gaping at me. In a tragic instant, I had fallen among them. I awoke shivering.
Yes! Hoffmann's tale had been an allegory, a subtle prophecy of my own estate. Need one clinch the parallel; I was, of yore, a haughty and remote artist, careless how little I earned in writing perfect things, writing but quarterly. Now, in the delusion that editors, loving the pauper, will fill his pockets, I write tor a weekly paper, and call myself "We." But the stress of anonymity overwhelms me. I belong to the Beerhohm period. I have tumbled into the dark waters ot current journalism, and am glad to sign my name,Max Beerbohm.